Monthly Archives: February 2013

Man versus Food

What we are eating and – additionally – how much of it we are eating is big news right now.

It’s certainly big news in this house where,  with just 2 weeks to go before I swan off to celebrate my 60th birthday in Sri Lanka,  I decided that unless I wished to be mistaken for Moby Dick washed up on a tropical beach, then losing a few of my excess pounds might be a good idea.  No problem, help yourself – I have plenty of those excess pounds to spare, unfortunately.

I know that, to some extent, the predilection for stacking on weight is about one’s genetic make-up.  Both my parents tended to be slightly or moderately overweight for most of their adult lives and to some extent this was about their body shape, which inclined toward short and stocky rather than svelte and slim.  Not surprisingly, I have picked up these genetic markers and have  probably been slowly piling on the pounds since my early 40’s.

My folks were also ‘foodies’ – they approached mealtimes with considerable gusto well into their seventies.  My Mum was a pretty accomplished cook of the traditional English type and, unfortunately, derived far too much of her self-esteem from what she put on the table.  In later years, with money a bit more plentiful, they took to eating out a bit more often and would frequently regale us with tales of meals they had recently eaten whilst on holiday in Cornwall or France,  even whilst in the midst of consuming a meal in this house.

Not that this offended me, you understand; both of my folks were always very complimentary about my cooking, which – to be honest – has become lazier and more uninspired as the years pass.  However, this ability to enthuse endlessly about meals already eaten was not lost on the Princess who grew up – perhaps unsurprisingly – to undergo an ‘eating disorder’ phase  in her mid-teens.  The two issues may not be connected, but I suspect that they are….

Giving up smoking a while back also accelerated this whole process; after all we all know about the compulsive oral aspects of sticking a cigarette in your mouth and once you stop that, food tends to take over and on go the pounds.

The other issue is probably lifestyle.  I do a reasonable amount of walking as a non-driver – that’s walking, not hiking – but have nonetheless became too sedentary for anyone’s comfort, least of all my own.

So, all in all, not a great recipe (so to speak) and I have slowly ballooned up to Zeppelin proportions over the last 12 months.  Finally, the penny dropped and I realised that the ‘I’ve quit smoking and now I’m fat but this will pass‘  mentality was just another example of false consciousness.

Overweight-Man-006

The real situation is that gaining weight is not a corollary of stopping smoking but is, in fact, another manifestation of the same thing – in other words, my erstwhile and lifelong tendency to eat, drink, smoke and ingest whatever I wanted to,  in whatever quantity suited me,  without having to particularly cope with any adverse consequences.  That ship, like the one containing my carefree youth, is now hull down over the horizon and vanishing fast.  Bottom line: I just can’t live like that any more if I want to live much longer at all.

So, how to deal with this new and unpalatable set of circumstances?  Well, if I tell you that I live with a partner who is obsessed with her appearance in general and her weight in particular, you can probably guess that there was no shortage of advice on offer.  Trouble is, though, I’m not a Weight Watchers joiner or a calorie counting obsessive – it just won’t happen, no matter how many photocopied articles from mid-market tabloids shrieking about ‘New Year, New You!’ or ‘Try our new Miracle Diet!’ are left lying around for me to read.  Just not going to happen, I’m afraid.

Monitored by the Princess, I initially tried to be more judicious and make healthier choices about what I was eating and not to snack between meals.  I also tried to build in a 30-minute walk every day, but it just wasn’t working.  I was still taking on board too many calories for my lifestyle and my weight was such that even a short walk was playing havoc with my knees and lower back.  It got to the point where even getting dressed in the morning was a major effort and with a short walk to the local High Street now often leaving me wrecked, I could see the horizons of my world closing in.  This must be how it happens, I thought; before you know it, you’re housebound and can only get somewhere in a cab or when somebody offers you a lift.

So, about a week ago, I just decided on a radical solution which so far seems to be producing promising results.  I have simply stopped eating during the day and now just eat an evening meal.  I drink juice and coffee during the day and have been known to scarf down the odd tomato as I pass the bowl, but no solids really.It’s hard, of course; not as hard as quitting smoking but still pretty difficult.  The rewards after a week seem to be that I simply feel ‘better’ in a vague and undefined manner,  walking around is easier,  my clothes don’t  pinch so much and I have actually lost the best part of a stone.  My aim is to take to the beaches of Sri Lanka in a fortnight or so as a moderately walrus-sized obstacle rather than a genuine shipping hazard.

Strangely, all of this personal angst and re-assessment is going on at a time when the Government is telling us that we are in the midst of an obesity epidemic.  We also seem to be eating quite a lot of horse-meat, apparently, which is blowing a lot of people’s ‘My Little Pony‘ dreams out of the water.  I seem to recall eating minced horse-meat a couple of times in Sweden in the 70’s and my recollection is that it was like a slightly more intensely flavoured version of ground beef.  Back then, I think the Swedes also sold a version of ‘biltong’ – wind-dried horse-meat in chewable strips.  Yum!

TescoOoops!

I think my appreciation of life’s ironies only grows more substantial as I grow older (and larger).  So it is that I find myself more than a little amused by the fact that it is at this very juncture of my life that I have discovered the joys of  a TV show called ‘Man versus Food’, which is shown on cable over here and is a great favourite with the Princess and many of her friends.  The name of the programme  kind of encapsulates my current predicament whilst the content is the kind of stuff which will – for better or worse – always be beyond me.

The leading light of ‘MvF’ was Adam Richman, a genial actor from  Brooklyn in his late 30’s who between 2008 and 2010 travelled around the USA, seeking out local culinary specialities and the diners, bars, cafés and restaurants that serve them.  These places often come up with ludicrous ‘challenges’ that speak directly to the competitive drive of Americans.  Typically,  people are required to consume insane quantities of the local ‘delicacy’, often within a time limit.  The reward  for those attempting (and succeeding in) these challenges is often nothing more than getting their meal free or getting their name on a ‘Wall of Fame’ in the restaurant or perhaps a t-shirt (usually XXXL)  that promotes the establishment in question.

In a typical episode, Adam and the ‘MvF’ crew will descend on an American city having previously researched the local delicacies.  Adam will visit a couple of places to try out said local delicacies before the main event, where he visits a place specialising in one of these deranged food challenges.  He starts in the kitchen to chat with the owner/proprietor or manager, finding out how the local speciality is cooked/assembled.  He then goes out front and takes on one of these ‘challenges’ in front of a crowd of hooting shrieking locals who cheer him on like they were at a baseball game.

ManvFood22

Adam Richman attacks another ludicrous plateful in ‘Man vs Food’

For example, the show I watched most recently saw Adam up in Portland, Maine, trying out one of Maine’s famous Lobster Shacks before moving on to a burger joint that specialised in a ziggurat of a burger with 8 beef patties, foie gras and grilled pork belly slices, bookended by a bun and pinned through with a long wooden skewer to keep it all together.  Surprisingly, that was not the (ahem) ‘Maine Event’.    That turned out to be a giant 6-pound plateful of frittata with potatoes, onions, pepperoni, bacon, broccoli and cheese, all bound together by 4 eggs.  It’s a  bit of a blur now, but I seem to recall that the challenge was to take this lot down in 20 minutes or less; then again, I could be mistaken, but it’s hardly important.  The main point of the show is that we get to gawp at the colossal burgers, steaks and plates of barbecue served up to ordinary Americans on a regular basis.  All of this is mediated by our engaging host Adam, who as he says in the show’s intro is ‘an ordinary guy with a serious appetite’.  Certainly, he can boast a high success rate in terms of defeating these challenges and can certainly put away huge quantities of food.

On the other hand, my experience of the USA, whilst limited to New York City should have taught me that what goes on in ‘Man versus Food’ is hardly unique to that show.  I can remember one of my first ‘eating out’ experiences at an Italian restaurant in The Bronx where I ordered an Escalope Milanese –  generally a thin escalope of veal, dipped in a mixture of seasoned breadcrumbs and egg, then swiftly pan-fried.  My dish arrived in a rectangular cast-iron dish,  about 18 inches long, 6 inches wide and 4 inches deep.  The majority of it was filled with a mixture of fried Mediterranean vegetables (tomatoes, capsicums, onions, aubergine etc), on top of which were perched 3 colossal Veal Escalopes, each one  beaten to a thin, irregular disc about the size of a standard dinner plate.  Just in case I was peckish, I got a huge pot of garlicky sautéd potatoes as well.  In Europe, this lot would have fed 3 hungry adults but this was mine, all mine.  It was indeed delicious, but my pleasure was diminished by the fact that I could only eat about half of what was on offer – and had to push myself to the limit in order to achieve that much.  This was hardly an unusual experience in New York and among the locals, there does seem to be the expectation that if you go out to eat, the ‘calibre’ of your meal is, to a considerable  extent, determined by the size of the portions.

Thankfully, living here,  I don’t really have to suffer the temptation of  American Diner food, though the ubiquitous Birmingham Curries are something I’m having to limit.    Of course, there will be plenty of curry in Sri Lanka as well, but just as much fresh fruit.

Crab Curry

Sri Lankan Crab Curry

However, even once I return from my 60th birthday expedition, I am going to need to be judicious about what and how much I’m eating and that is something that I’ll simply have to put up with from now on.  Just another of the delights of growing older…

The Ugly Duckling that never made the cut…..

For the last few years, I have ‘adopted’ a DVD box set of a TV drama series to see me through the long, dark winter evenings and this winter has been no different.

I’d set the bar pretty high for this, because in previous years I had chosen  (in 2010-2011) ‘The Sopranos‘ and (in 2011-2012) ‘The Wire’.  This winter’s choice was a little bit out of left field – a friend offered to lend me DVD Box of the first 4 series of ‘Fringe’, a rather obscure little sci-fi series made by some of the people involved in ‘Lost’  including J J Abrams, who also directed the most recent ‘Star Trek‘ movie and has now (apparently) been lined up to direct the first movie in the next phase of  George Lucas’ ongoing ‘Star Wars’ saga.

‘Fringe‘ was a series about which I knew little except that it had been chugging along on Sky TV in this country without ever threatening to break out into mainstream success.  From a distance, it looked more like one of those odd items that used to crop up on the SciFi channel – occasional pilots for potential series that never quite happened.  Yet for all this, as I began with Series 1 of ‘Fringe’, Sky were starting in on the fifth and final series of the show, so in the end the ‘Fringe’ saga would amount to 100 episodes.  I felt that, under the circumstances, that something good must be going on here, so although I’d been warned that the early shows were ‘a bit lame’ (to quote a friend), there was surely something here worth persevering with.  Armed with this conviction, I entered the murky worlds of ‘Fringe’.

Fringe’I soon discovered was shorthand for the ‘Fringe Division’ –  a small and marginalised sub-section of the FBI whose raison d’etre was to investigate all that weird stuff which Mulder & Scully left behind when ‘The X Files’ shuffled off to TV Nostalgia Heaven about 10 years ago.

Like ‘The X Files’, ‘Fringe‘ could boast a core group of dedicated individuals who would stick with the show throughout its five-series run from 2008 to 2012.  The inner quartet were headed by FBI Agent Olivia Dunham, played by Australian actress Anna Torv and she was aided and abetted by ex-hippie and (slightly) mad scientist Walter Bishop,  played by another Aussie, John Noble, probably best known for his portrayal of the deeply unpleasant and ultimately deranged Denethor, Steward of Gondor, in Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lord of the Rings‘.  Also in attendance were Bishop’s son, Peter (Joshua Jackson) and Lab Assistant /Earth Mother/ FBI Agent Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole).  In addition,  there were also regular guest turns from Lance Reddick, Blair Brown, Kirk Acevedo, Seth Gabel and – occasionally – even a craggy and rather infirm-looking Leonard Nimoy.

Fringe-Liberty_510x317

L-R, Jasika Nicole, John Noble, Anna Torv & Joshua Jackson

So, after some initial manoeuvring, the Fringe Team set up shop in Walter Bishop’s abandoned lab at Harvard.  Obviously, Harvard isn’t subject to the same financial strictures as British universities; the idea that this huge space could remain mothballed for so many years with all Walter’s toys left intact defies any kind of logic.  In the UK, the lab would have either been converted and modernised or rented off as a Starbuck’s franchise.  But this is ‘Fringe’ and things aren’t always what they might seem.

So Season 1 chugs along after a promising pilot episode where a flight from Hamburg to Boston is taken over by some flesh-eating virus – or was it a giant mutant porcupine?  I cannot recall now, but I felt that it was worth persisting with the series – after all, it was that or multiple episodes of ‘Roller-Skating Celebrity Pets on Ice ‘ and suchlike.  It soon fell into a pattern – the Team get a call to go and check out some random piece of weirdness (mainly located in the northeastern USA), they resolve it and then move on to the next case.

Basically,  over the first couple of seasons,  ‘Fringe’   diligently set about fleshing out the back-stories of the leading characters, so we learn that there’s potentially (surprise, surprise) a big romance on the cards for Agent Dunham and Peter Bishop, and we also learn that Peter’s  father, Walter, before being locked up in a mental hospital for 17 years, had a fondness for blotter acid, psychedelic rock music and morally indefensible scientific experiments which would have brought a cheery smile to the face of Josef Mengele.  Even so, we are supposed to accept him now as a loveable eccentric who shows genuine remorse for his past misdeeds whilst acting as the Fringe team’s resident scientific guru, meanwhile  indulging a fatal weakness for all manner of American junk food – everything from strawberry milkshakes to red licorice sticks.

I suppose it helps if you are able to accept John Noble’s bumbling Worzel Gummidge persona and his apparent desire to atone for having experimented on and permanently damaged the lives of a group of helpless children with dangerous pharmaceuticals,  not to mention potentially destroying the universe back in his arrogant younger days.

However, it doesn’t really fly, I’m afraid.  Noble simply isn’t an accomplished enough actor to engender much audience sympathy or give his character the emotional depth that might make us think twice about him.   His passive/aggressive behaviour towards his son and his use of emotional blackmail to make himself the centre of attention soon render his performances a fairly constant irritant and it’s perhaps no coincidence that the ‘Fringe‘ episodes that work best are the ones where he barely features.  In fact, aside from son Peter, it’s difficult to fathom out why everyone seems so fond of him.

As for our romantic leads, this, too, is a romance made in hell, because  the ongoing love-fest between Messrs Torv and Jackson manages to whip up an emotional whirlwind that would have trouble blowing over a house of cards.

Miss Torv may have the regulation long blonde tresses and a trim enough figure, but she simply has no sex appeal whatsoever.  She plays a workaholic who radiates a kind of bovine lugubriousness that renders  her occasional romantic encounters about as steamy as a damp dishcloth.  Meanwhile,  Joshua Jackson puts me in mind of the former Swedish international footballer Tomas Brolin, who was once described by (I think) Mark Radcliffe as being like a ‘pretty pig’.   Jackson has the  porcine to go with Anna Torv’s bovine, which leaves only the diminutive Jasika Nicole, whose Agent Farnsworth gets to play the ‘straight (wo)man’ to all the others and does so very sweetly and effectively.  In fact, most of the supporting cast regulars do a great job by and large, but the lack of magnetism among the principals makes their job doubly difficult.

Donald A. Wollheim once wrote that science fiction was more important for the ideas it generated than it was for the depth of the characterisation of its heroes, so how does ‘Fringe’ fare on that level?  Last year I watched a much shorter series called ‘Terra Nova’ which featured an even more obnoxious cast but could boast some fairly nifty special effects.  It didn’t really help that much but it made the series marginally less grim to watch.

With that in mind, it has to be said that some of the pseudo-science dished up in ‘Fringe’ is quite interesting, if occasionally risible.  Best of all is the ‘parallel universe’ plot which runs for much of Seasons 2-4 before being summarily dumped at the end of Season 4.  The alternative Earth – well, we only see Boston and New York, really – has some interesting inversions and variations.  Anna Torv puts in her best performances as her  punky alter ego from ‘the other side’ and Walter Bishop is both sinister and megalomaniacal as the Secretary of Defence (with a ‘s’).

fringe_wallpaper03_1920x1080_et

The two Olivias – neurotic workaholic or punky go-getter?

In some ways, ‘Fringe‘ always struggled to build an audience and in many ways, it was remarkable that it survived for 100 episodes.  Clearly, towards the end of Season 4, the decision was made to run a curtailed Season 5 and wrap up the whole saga.  This final Season has only just ended and I’m still not sure whether to admire the boldness of the producers for the radical plot changes they made for that final 13 episodes.

Basically and as briefly as possible, a constant and (largely) unexplained feature of the whole saga was the role of the so-called ‘Observers’, a recurring group of bald and pasty-faced men with a weakness for dark suits and fedora hats who seem to crop up at important junctures of the plot throughout the first 4 Seasons.  These characters seem largely benign and neutral -hence the name they are given – but from Episode 19 of Season 4 (‘Letters of Transit’) , we are forced to view them in a different light.  They are – it seems – from our future and have developed the ability to travel through time but having been passive and benign for so long, from 2015 onwards, they become malign and aggressive, attempting to take over the whole world and imposing a totalitarian government highly reminiscent of Orwell’s ‘1984’  where they use mind control and torture  to keep the population cowed and submissive.

Having spent such a long time setting up the whole parallel universe storyline, it’s amazing to witness how it took the producers only one subsequent episode (Episode 20 – Season 4 – ‘Worlds Apart‘ ) to shut all that down and pave the way for the radical Season 5.  Such, it seems, are the effects of poor ratings…

Season 5’s thirteen episodes are set in the future – 2036 to be precise – and generally  feature only the central quartet – the two Bishops plus Agents Dunham and Farnsworth.  Blair Brown and Lance Reddick (as their older selves) appear far less often and the Parallel Earth makes only a fleeting appearance in the penultimate episode.  The series is notable for the appearance of Peter & Olivia’s grown-up daughter Henrietta, a member of the Resistance who are trying to stop the Observers from taking over and ruining the planet.  The Bishops plus Agents Dunham and Farnsworth have by 2036 been suspended in amber (don’t ask) for over 20 years until the resourceful Henrietta busts them out.  They are then free to resume their battle to defeat the Observers .

fringe-season-5-premiere-peter

Season 5 – Georgina Haig (L) joins the merry throng as Henrietta

At times, frankly, the plot – not for the first time – totters on the brink of disastrous absurdity, but having slogged my way through the general doldrums and occasional highlights of Seasons 1-4, I was in no mood to abandon ‘Fringe’ now.  With an almost grim determination I hung in there until the inevitable soft-sell conclusion where Walter Bishop finally got to redeem himself by saving the universe he once almost destroyed and Peter & Olivia were restored to a past where they got their lives and their daughter back.

As a series, ‘Fringe’ is like the Ugly Duckling that never became a swan.  It just never took off, possibly because the plot was initially too predictable, but then became too wild for mainstream viewers.   Possibly it was because of the leaden acting and the lack of chemistry between some of the principals.  I can’t help but wonder whether the ‘Fringe‘ fan-base felt cheated by the events of the final season or not.  I find it hard to imagine how anyone who sat down in 2008 to watch Season 1, Episode 1 and followed it week by week and Season by Season must have felt when all of that careful plot development effectively got thrown out of the window over the last 13 episodes.  Of course, you could argue that Fringe’ is just TV fluff and that we’re not meant to take it seriously, but the way in which the show promoted and projected itself would very much suggest otherwise.

Next winter, I think I may need to choose my Box set a little more carefully…